by Eldar Mamedov
When the neoconservative echo chamber in the US was selling the war in Iraq almost two decades ago, it promised that the “road to peace in the Middle East ran through Baghdad.” This notion, of course, was thoroughly discredited in the wake of the catastrophic American invasion of Iraq. However, several factors have recently created conditions for Baghdad to indeed play the role of a regional focal point for de-escalation of tensions, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is planning to visit Iraq, the culmination of years of effort by Riyadh to reconnect with Baghdad. This upcoming visit would mean a symbolic recognition by Saudi Arabia of a post-Saddam political order, whereby the Shia parties, in virtue of their sheer demographic weight, are poised to play a predominant role in the affairs of state. Gone are the days when the Saudis tried to channel their interests in Iraq through Sunni forces that are ineffective and sulking at their perceived loss of privilege and power. Now, as their intensified outreach to the Baghdad government and plethora of Shia forces shows, the Saudis have chosen to advance their interests by working through the system rather than by undermining it. In contrast to Saudi actions in Qatar, Lebanon, and Yemen, their Iraqi policy seems sensible and pragmatic.
Of course, a major motivation of such a Saudi charm offensive, well oiled with financial incentives, is to wean Iraq from any dependence on Iran. Some in the Western media have suggested that the Saudi outreach has therefore made Iran nervous. But the reality is more nuanced.
To begin with, Iranians are realistic in their expectations. They appreciate the potency of Iraqi nationalism and, contrary to much hyped reporting in the West and Arab world, are not aspiring to convert Iraq to their satellite. All Iran wants is to secure a government in Iraq that is not hostile to its vital security interests. Considering the turbulent history of Iraq-Iran relations, which long precedes both the establishment of the Islamic Republic and the subsequent war between the two countries, any responsible government in Tehran would seek reasonable relations with Baghdad.
Besides, Iranians are aware that the same reason for which they can’t completely control Iraq applies in equal measure to their Saudi rivals. If Shiism cannot convert Iraq to an Iranian puppet, its Arab identity won’t make it a Saudi one either. It’s just too complex a country to be pigeonholed in this way. Although to a much lesser degree than the neighboring historic nations of Turkey and Iran, Iraq during its existence as a state has forged a national identity, first under the Hashemite monarchy, then under Baathist rule. This is a multilayered identity, which also includes Assyrian and Babylonian heritage. A proud center of the Arab civilization, Baghdad welcomes closer ties with its rich Arab Gulf neighbors, but it won’t play a second fiddle to them diplomatically.
Therefore, any Saudi effort to “bribe” Iraq away from its relations with Iran would be doomed to failure. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is fully aware that he can’t afford to alienate Iran, since Iran has significant assets in Iraq and will not hesitate to deploy them to protect its interests. The investment Tehran made into securing the friendly regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria would pale in comparison with what it would be prepared to do to prevent Iraq from slipping away to the pro-Saudi camp. After all, Iran has borders with Iraq, not Syria. But most importantly, al-Abadi himself doesn’t see any value in antagonizing Iran. To the contrary, he sees good relations with Iran as a necessary prerequisite for the peace, stability, and development of his own country. Iran’s decisive support of Baghdad in facing down the threats of the so-called Islamic State and Kurdish separatism demonstrated to the Iraqis the tangible benefits of cooperating with Iran. Given this reality, Iranians see Saudi overtures to Baghdad more as an opportunity to de-escalate tensions than a threat to their well entrenched positions in Iraq.
Another reason why Iraq is well positioned to play the role of a regional peacemaker is the fact that al-Abadi is one of the very few statesmen in the region with the wherewithal to urge some restraint on the United States. Under the Trump administration, the US has consciously eschewed the option of talking to Iran and has taken a more hostile position toward the nuclear deal concluded by the Obama administration. However, America’s more aggressive approach to Iran, as signaled by the statements of President Trump and his newly appointed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, risks a further destabilization of the whole region.
Iraq could well be caught in the middle of the US-Iranian confrontation, either directly or by proxy. This would reverse all the gains secured by the government in Baghdad in recent years. More chaos and violence would also require an open-ended American military presence in the region, thus reversing Trump´s promises of more restrained American involvement in the Middle East. Using the Baghdad channel for de-confliction would be helpful to avoid blundering into an all-out war with Iran that nobody wants. That is also how the regional role of Iraq is seen by other external players, such as the EU, which came out with its own new Iraq strategy.
At a time when the region is beset by political and sectarian rivalries, the Iraqi government possesses an ability to talk to all parties. Rather than trying to pull Iraq into one of the warring camps, regional and external players should build on the country’s potential mediating role in order to start a de-escalation process.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament. Photo: Haider al-Abadi (Wikimedia Commons).